Pianist / Conductor  Christoph  Eschenbach

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Christoph Eschenbach (Piano, Conductor)

Born: February 20, 1940 - Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland)

Christoph Eschenbach (real name Ringmann) is a German pianist and conductor. His parents were Margarethe (née Jaross) and the musicologist Heribert Ringmann. He was orphaned during World War II. His mother died giving birth to him; his father was sent to the war front to be slaughtered in a Nazi punishment battalion. His adoptive grandmother was then killed while trying to extract him and herself from the path of the Allied armies. As a result of the trauma, he did not speak for a year, until he was asked if he wanted to play music. Fortunately for the young boy, his mother's cousin, Wallydore Eschenbach (née Jaross), tracked him down after the war (1946) and adopted him from the refugee camp that would likely have claimed his life. It is from her side of the family that he eventually took his better-known surname.

Eschenbach began studying piano at the age of eight, taught by his adoptive mother. She quickly realized his talents and enrolled him in the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik, where he studied both piano and conducting. At age 11 he witnessed Wilhelm Furtwängler conduct, which had a great impact on him. He later studied piano with Eliza Hansen in Hamburg. As a boy he won First Prize in the 1952 Steinway Piano Competition. In 1955 he enrolled at the Musikhochschule in Cologne, studying with Hans-Otto Schmidt-Neuhaus, and in 1959, he started studying conducting with Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. In 1962 he took second prize in the Munich International competition. However, it was with his first prize at the Clara Haskil Competition in Montreux, France, in 1965, that he finally made his mark. This new notoriety led to a London concert debut in 1966, and a prestigious debut with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell in 1969. Szell was impressed with his musicianship and gave him lessons in conducting, starting a close relationship that lasted until Szell's death in 1970.

eschenbach He was soon essaying a wide repertory in concert tours throughout Europe and America. Notable in his programs were a large number of works from 20th century composers, such as Béla Bartók, Henze, Rihm, Reimann, Blacher, and Ruzicka. His performances of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert were considered revelatory. In 1964, he made his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon and signed a contract with the label.

Herbert von Karajan was his mentor for nearly twenty-five years. Eschenbach made his conducting debut in 1972 with a performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 3, soon followed by Verdi's La Traviata at Darmstadt in 1978. In 1979 he was named general music director of the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic. In 1981, he became principal guest conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich, and from 1982 to 1986 held the posts of Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Orchestra.

In 1988 Eschenbach began his association as Music Director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1999. Although the Orchestra was already established as one of America's finer major symphonies, Eschenbach improved its musical quality, heightened its national and international reputation, and broadened its repertory. He also formed the Houston Symphony Chamber Players from its ranks. The Houston Symphony Orchestra toured Japan and Europe under his tenure as well made several recordings with Koch International Classics, Virgin, RCA Red Seal, Telarc, and Carlton labels.

These included standard fare including all of the major Mozart wind concertos with the orchestra's own soloists. They also recorded Kurt Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny suite, Tobias Picker's Les Encantadoras, and the violin concertos of John Adams and Philip Glass. Eschenbach's era was marked by a strong relationship with the musicians, who admired him on and off the stage. In honor of his many achievements and tenure with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the City of Houston placed a bronze commemorative star with his name in front of Jones Hall, the performance home of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Eschenbach now holds the title of Conductor Laureate of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

Other posts have included Chief Conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg from 1998 to 2004; Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, from 1994 to 2003; and Artistic Director of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival from 1999 to 2002; and Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris from 2000-2010.

Christoph Eschenbach was named the 7th Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, effective as of 2003. Some considered this a controversial appointment because, at the time of the announcement, Eschenbach had not conducted the orchestra in over 4 years and there was a perceived lack of personal chemistry between him and the musicians prior to the appointment. Partway into his tenure, his initial 3-year contract was renewed to 2008. In August 2007, the orchestra announced extended guest-conducting periods for Eschenbach with the ensemble in the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons, after the scheduled conclusion of his tenure as Music Director.

In the 2008-2009 season, Christoph Eschenbach took the Orchestre de Paris to the Berlin Festival, the BBC Proms, and on a tour of Scandinavia, and he led the Philadelphia Orchestra on a 3-week European tour. Other highlights included return engagements with the Wiener Philharmoniker (both in Vienna and on tour throughout Europe), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as his concerts with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam.

In the 2009-2010 season, Eschenbach returned to the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg, where he played and conducted, and to the Philadelphia Orchestra to lead two programs, one of which included Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in Carnegie Hall - completing his Mahler cycle with the orchestra. Eschenbach also conducted two programs at Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and took the orchestra on a tour of China. He also returned to the Dresden Staatskapelle, conducting its annual nationally televised Advent Concert, subscription concerts in Dresden, and a tour throughout Germany and in Abu Dhabi.


In demand as a distinguished guest conductor with the finest orchestras and opera houses throughout the world, Eschenbach is Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, as well as Music Director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C. He assumed these posts beginning with the 2010-2011 season.

A prolific recording artist over five decades, Eschenbach has an impressive discography (over 80 recordings) as both a conductor and a pianist on a number of prominent labels. His recordings include works ranging from J.S. Bach to music of our time, and reflect his commitment to not just canonical works but the music of the late-20th and early-21st century as well, a number of which have received prestigious honors including BBC Magazine’s “Disc of the Month,” Gramophone’s “Editor’s Choice,” and the German Record Critics’ Award, among others. His recent Ondine recording of the music of Kaija Saariaho with the Orchestre de Paris and soprano Karita Mattila won the 2009 MIDEM Classical Award in Contemporary Music. Eschenbach has also appeared in several television documentaries, and has made many concert broadcasts for different European, Japanese and USA networks.

Eschenbach is credited with helping and supporting talented young musicians in their career development, including soprano Renée Fleming, pianists Tzimon Barto and Lang Lang, cellist Claudio Bohórquez, and soprano Marisol Montalvo. He was made a Chevalier (knight) of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, presented by French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres in June 2006; in October 2002, he was present with the Legion d'honneur by French President Jacques Chirac; and in August 2002, the Officer's Cross with Star and Ribbon of the Verdienstorden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (German Order of Merit), and the Commander's Cross of the German Order of Merit in 1993 for outstanding achievements as pianist and conductor. He also received the Leonard Bernstein Award from the Pacific Music Festival, where he was co-artistic director from 1992 to 1998, along with Michael Tilson Thomas.

--  Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 


This conversation with Christoph Eschenbach was held at the Ravinia Festival, in August of 1990, which is before he had become Music Director, and just as he was beginning his association with other ensembles in the US.

Bruce Duffie:    Thank you very much for agreeing to chat with me today.

Christoph Eschenbach:    With pleasure, with pleasure.

BD:    You’ve just come from rehearsal and you have a concert tonight.  Is all of your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave a little bit for that spark of performance on the evening?

CE:    With a rehearsal schedule like this, where I have two programs and just three rehearsals, there you have to leave something for the evening.  But I usually do it all.  I’m an evening person, anyway, and the exciting thing for the orchestra and the conductor is if the evening has some exciting new aspects after the rehearsal process.

BD:    Is this what determines how you select music, whether you can always find new bits and pieces no matter how many times you perform a work?

CE:    In all good music and in all excellent music, I choose only pieces like that, where there are numerous points and numerous aspects where you can put a new spotlights, and there you find new things.  Even in a Beethoven Seventh I’m sure that I will find two or three things tonight, in an enlightened moment of concert.  This is the great thing about music, that you can explore always new territories.

eschenbach BD:    With something new that you find tonight, will you then incorporate that into all your further performances, or will it be just something for the moment?

CE:    Most of these things you can incorporate in next performances.  It makes the performances better the older you get, probably.  [Both laugh]

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Are you saying you must have a certain age before you can even begin?

CE:    No, no, no.  Freshness and youth have also their own things, which vanish later.  [Laughs]  So it’s an equivalent.

BD:    A certain naïveté then is gone?

CE:    Could be.

BD:    You say you only choose the good or excellent pieces of music.  What are some of the threads that contribute to making a piece of music good or excellent, or even great?

CE:    There is an enormous amount of great pieces of music.  I don’t speak only of the very well-known great pieces of music, but there are lots of pieces which I love and which are great, and which have all the ingredients of making them great.

BD:    Such as?

CE:    Such as depth, such as no superficial notes or no superfluous music no superfluous measures.  Also the craftsmanship of writing, and, and, and.

BD:    I assume that each piece of music, then, has all of these little traits in different proportion?

CE:    Of course.

BD:    You don’t have to name a specific piece, but are there pieces, or even a single piece, which has everything in absolutely perfect balance?

CE:    I would say Beethoven symphonies all have it.  The Brahms symphonies all have it.  The Mahler symphonies all have it all.  Most of the Bruckner, and I am a champion very much of Schumann, for example.  Many people think that Schumann’s symphonies are not so good, but I think that all four are fantastic, and so are most of his overtures; also the Faust Scenes and the late chorus pieces, the ballades, and these pieces.  I hope to get more people convinced that this is great music.

BD:    Is this part of your mission in life, to convince more people that more pieces are great?

CE:    Certainly the pieces that I think are great, I have a mission for.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re putting together programs of concert music, you have this vast array of literature.  How do you decide which of the great pieces, and perhaps which of the lesser great pieces you will sprinkle in each concert, or each season?

CE:    I’m very much for letting the audience have a very colorful picture of symphonic literature in an evening, and also during a season, during a subscription season, for example.  Some programs I mix together really controversial... well, not controversial pieces, but pieces of different colors which are divergent.  Other programs, I pursue a theme or a mood which is consistent through a program.  So you can have different aspects, but one should not overload an audience during a season, for example, of only one mood or one theme or one literary aspect or one chapter or subject type of programs.

BD:    Or even one key?

CE:    Oh, yes.  One must be very careful of that, but it can happen.

BD:    Should some of the pieces which are perhaps not great be performed with any regularity?

CE:    If they have interesting enough aspects in them and maybe less interesting aspects aside, or if they are interesting from a different point of view, say instrumentation, or if they pursue an interesting text.  There are certainly pieces like that, and they should be performed.

eschenbach BD:    What about new works?  What do you look for in a new work, to decide if you will try it out on the public?

CE:    Actually the same aspects as an old work, which I mentioned before.  For an audience, a new work has to be consistently taking them into its band, be it excitement, be it a certain mood which captures them from the first measures to the last, or anything which makes the audience listen to it carefully.  Then that’s the proof for a good piece, I think.

BD:    Is there a line that is continuing in music?  Do you feel that music is continuing along a direct line, or an indirect line?

CE:    An indirect line, at least, yes.  I’m very much a person who thinks progressively, and who does not say that the music ends with Wagner.  [Both laugh]  I’m very much for new music, and I think there are great composers around.

BD:    Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write a piece of symphonic music, or perhaps a piece of piano music or chamber music these days?

CE:    I would tell them to explore all the possibilities of a symphony orchestra, and to explore all the psychological sides of a musician and a non-musician, both the performer and an audience.

BD:    So a composer should be aware of who will be listening to the music?

CE:    I think so, yes.

BD:    Are you always aware of the public that is behind you when you are conducting?

CE:    The public at the concert performance puts me in another state of mind, actually, first of all, in the force that I have to perform something.  It must be very, very good because the listener expects it from me.  So everything is set for something special.  Hopefully, it goes well, but the listener has the right to expect that.  Also it’s a wonderful state of mind that you just think you have to do something special with the music you have in front of.  But when I perform, I don’t think any more of the individuals sitting behind me.  It’s just another state of mind, but that’s all.

BD:    Can you duplicate that state of mind when there is no one behind you at a recording session?

CE:    In the recording sessions I try to be my own.  For my orchestras I try to convince them to think the same, to be one’s own self-critical audience, and to listen to what one does.  One can listen to the tape a few minutes later on like an audience would listen, so in a recording session you should be performer and audience in one person.  That makes excitement again for the recording.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that you have made both as pianist and conductor?

CE:    Yes.  Unfortunately, recordings are always a rush nowadays because of money.

BD:    You’d think it would be the other way around, because of the ability for retakes and retakes.


CE:    Yes.  I don’t think so much about retakes and retakes, but I think more about listening carefully to it.  There is never the time now, so you have to just trust your recording producers.  With my new recording company I am very happy, because I have incredibly good teams.  There are others which are maybe not so good, and so one doesn’t feel so well.

BD:    Do you account for the difference in an audience member who is used to sitting home and listening in the living room to two speakers, than coming to the concert hall and hearing a one-shot performance?

CE:    There’s nothing more exciting than a concert performance.  A record can be as exciting as it can be, but it can never be as exciting as a concert.  Also, the listener brings his own living attitude into it, and the conjunction between these two living cosmoses of stage and audience is something special, which one cannot 100 percent put on a metal disc.

BD:    So the metal disc is a good compromise when necessary?

CE:    Of course it is, and it is a wonderful educational attribute.

BD:    Should going to a concert be educational?

CE:    In a way, yes, but first of all it should be an adventure, a psychological adventure.  Music paints such big psychological canvases.  That should be the first thing.  Secondarily it can be education on a larger scale, or in a larger sense of culture.

BD:    Let me ask the balance question, then.  In the concert, where is the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

CE:    These things go into each other.  They are not separate compartments because a human being is not a closet with drawers.  Only one blood goes through the whole body and invigorates mankind to think and to feel.  So you cannot really separate these things.  Of course, these ingredients are all coming with a concert, or with experiencing any art. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Besides being a fine conductor, you’re also a first-rate pianist.  Does this help you at all when you are conducting another pianist in one of the works you may or may not have played?

CE:    I enjoy very, very much so-called accompanying.  I never think of it as accompanying.  I always think of a dual role of conductor and soloist, and I enjoy tremendously to work with pianists, as well as violinists and cellists or singers, or whatever instrument.  I just like this dual role.

BD:    So you feel it’s very collaborative?

CE:    It’s very collaborative and very inspiring.

BD:    Do you ever find that you are placed with a soloist whose ideas are completely opposed to your ideas?

CE:    No.  On a certain high level, one can expect different aspects of a piece.  But if the attitude towards the piece would be totally opposed, one would know that before, and one would consider if one really makes up his mind to collaborate with this person.  I have never had difficulty with that.  As different they might have been, I’ve always had the pleasure of discovering new things in pieces.

eschenbach BD:    For some reason we have avoided the name Mozart in this conversation so far.  Tell me the secret of performing Mozart.

CE:    [Laughs]  If I could do that in one word, I would be happy.  [Both laugh]  Mozart is very, very complex.  I think a secret of performing Mozart is to know his operas.  It’s all about diction, and stage, and different personalities.  I have learned very much from his operas for the instrumental music.

BD:    Do you, then, suggest that a piano soloist, or a violin soloist, go listen to Così or The Marriage of Figaro?

CE:    Of course.  At least you wouldn’t miss something for his life.

BD:    [Laughs]  You seem to be achieving this balance of conducting the operas and the concert music of Mozart.  Is this a special passion for you to do all of the Mozart works, or at least all of the great Mozart pieces?

CE:    I by far don’t do all of the Mozart or even all of the great ones, because so much is created of Mozart.  I don’t do all of it, but I do much, and of course I’m very happy that I can do opera and symphonic music and piano literature and chamber music and songs, and explore herewith all the aspects of the Mozart genius.  I must say, the older I get, there are more and more enigmas I find in the music.  It doesn’t get easier at all.

BD:    It gets harder?

CE:    Yes, because it is so subtle.  I’m sometimes scared of doing something wrong to it, and I’m so sensitive to it if something doesn’t sound right.  With Mozart, it’s totally wrong already if it’s not perfectly upright, and to define what is perfectly right is also not easy and terribly difficult.  So it’s a very, very difficult matter, but a matter of words to live for.

BD:    If you get something perfectly right one day, is that perfection, perhaps, going to be right the next day or the next week or the next month?

CE:    No.  That’s also the difficult thing.  It’s so fragile that you never know if what is right in your own life one day matches to that what you do the next day.

BD:    So it’s not Mozart that changes; it’s yourself that changes?

CE:    Yes.

BD:    Is there only one way to perform any given piece?

CE:    Yes.  That sounds very, very strange that I say, “Yes,” but a performer, a musician on the highest level is always right when he brings something totally convincing, when he translates the black dots on the white paper in a totally convincing way.  Or let’s go one step further, and say he does so in a shockingly convincing way to his listener.  Then he’s right.  It can be Mr. X or Mrs. B, and they can have two totally different approaches to the same piece, but if they shock me as a listener, or make me cry or make me happy, then they both are right.

BD:    So it’s a matter of being convinced?

CE:    Yes, and exploring at the same time all that’s possible to explore in the music, or the most amount which is possible.

BD:    Are there some pieces that you finally get to the bottom of, and you’ve explored everything in them?

eschenbach CE:    No.

BD:    Even a poor piece?

CE:    Oh, there are no poor pieces, for me.  The poor pieces, I wouldn’t deal with.  It’s a waste of time.

BD:    Are there ever any pieces that you thought years ago were poor, but then you come back to them and maybe think they’re not so bad, and perhaps there is something there, some depths to plumb?

CE:    That’s for sure.  There are many pieces, or even composers, where the door opened late.  For example, I had a block for Sibelius, and now, all of a sudden it opens for me that this is great, great music.  But it can happen that for years you don’t discover it.  Maybe, also, you didn’t have time to really get into the matter.

BD:    Are there some pieces that you’ve been performing, and you then decide, “I won’t do them anymore?”

CE:    This happened, too, yes, but much less.  This is rare because a piece has to jump on me, and has to have its own conviction on me so that I grab on it and perform it and work it.

BD:    Does it leap off the page at you, or does the sound in the air when it’s being performed leap into your ears?

CE:    No, when I read it.

BD:    You’re never surprised by hearing it and not getting exactly what you thought it would be?

CE:    No.  No.  No.  In this profession, you have to know your analysis, your way to analyze a piece.  You can read the piece, and it sounds in you while reading.

BD:    Even something very new, that’s perhaps more complex than you’re used to doing every day?

CE:    Yes.  It should be clear by reading.

BD:    If it’s not clear by reading, then it’s the fault of the composer for not making it clear?

CE:    Could be.  It has happened, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to opera for a moment, you mentioned that one of the things about Mozart is the diction.  Do you then want all of the works performed in the language that people can understand, rather than in the original if that’s not the language of the country you’re performing in at the moment?

CE:    No.  I prefer, and I’m an ardent defender, of original language, because the words, and the meaning of the words, and the sound of the language, is composed into the music.  For example, I find Verdi in German sounds horrible to me because it’s not the music.  The vowels, the consonants, everything, has to go as composed with that certain note or in a certain phrasing.  The same for French music if it’s sung in English, or Britten if it’s sung in Russian, which I’ve heard once.  It’s very strange.  It does not work for me.  In this country you have a very nice thing in opera, the sub-titles, so the audience sometimes can look and see.  In a good production of an opera you understand, anyway, the meaning of what’s going on and what’s said.  Also if the singer pronounces not only the word but the meaning of the word right, then you can get it very easily.

exchenbach BD:    So it’s an instinctive and a dramatic thing, rather than a purely word-oriented thing?

CE:    Absolutely.

BD:    It’s a strange dichotomy, then, that you can understand the words if they’re pronounced well, even though you might not get the exact translation in your head.

CE:    Yes, right.  For example, take Wagner.  This is absolutely a crazy text!  I’m German, but I mostly don’t understand anything that’s going on in a Wagner performance word-by-word-wise, but I get it from the way of singing, the way it happens on stage.

BD:    The overall sweep

CE:     Yes.

BD:    You’ve started to do quite a bit of conducting and performing here in the United States.  Are we different than the Europeans?

CE:    You mean the audience, or musicians?

BD:    Let’s take audience first.

CE:    Yes, in a way.  An American one is less snobby.  You can’t say they are more naïve, but you can say, on the other hand, they are also more fresh and less preoccupied, which I like very much.

BD:    Is this not, perhaps, the way the composers envisioned their works to be absorbed the first time?

CE:    I think so.  I am very happy to work in this country, not only because the professionalism amongst musicians and in the orchestras is incredibly much higher than in most places in Europe.  I shouldn’t say that, but I’ll say that anyway.  More orchestras over there are subsidized, and maybe that’s the reason, but everybody here knows exactly about what it means to perform for its own sake, and so I enjoy that.  I enjoy also the freshness of the audience, and that music, as Beethoven said, “Comes from the heart, and goes to the heart.”  That’s really very obvious here, whereas in Europe sometimes you have this intellectual block in between.  But of course they are also good audiences.  It’s not a black and white.

BD:    When you find the psychological block, what has put up that barrier?

CE:    Perhaps it is the feelings that they own most of the music.  [Both laugh]  It was composed there and it’s a cultural treasure, and through decades and centuries there’s a performing tradition.  There’s also a “tradition” which Mahler called “Schlamperei.”  What this means is just carelessness.  But on the other hand, it means also very much for a European to be born on a continent where culturally so much happens.  I think one should be aware not of pride but of responsibility, and should see that one is very, very careful for that basic treasure.

BD:    Someone living in Salzburg, then, may or may not be steeped in the tradition of Mozart?

CE:    [Laughs]  Maybe steeped in the tradition of Mozart or maybe steeped also more in the tradition of the Mozart kugel.  [Laughs]  That means in a wrong picture of the composer.

BD:    When you come to an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony, do you try to shape it in your image, or do you try to shape it in, for instance, Beethoven’s image?

CE:    I try to shape it in Beethoven’s image.

BD:    Is there no Christoph Eschenbach that comes through the Beethoven?


:    Oh well, of course!  Let’s say the other way around.  Beethoven comes through me, through my living, or through my blood that’s revived, but it should be all Beethoven.  I should be only the medium.

BD:    You’re just the conduit?

CE:    Yes, but with everything I have, and also my intellect and also my ability to analyze the score.

BD:    But mostly your heart?

CE:    Everything together.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

CE:    [Laughs]  Why is it sorrows?

BD:    Are there no sorrows?

CE:    You mean with singers?  I love to work with singers.  It is from my background.  My mother was a singer, and I learned very much about voice when I was very young.  I worked extensively with singers as accompanist.  I did very much with Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Schreier, and with Edith Mathis and with Julia Varady, and with other great people.  I learned a lot about voice.  It’s the most direct way to express music.  The instrument is in the human body, and therefore it can be so moving and exciting, and together with a certain text it can really shake you.  This is what a singer does in the most wonderful way. 

BD:    What advice do you have for young singers coming along?

CE:    Most of all, to care for their voice, and not to let themselves be drowned in the music business which chases them around from place to place, from jet lag to jet lag, and after a few years they discover that they don’t have any voice left, or that their voice is damaged.  There are so many young singers who are precious musicians who have precious, precious voices.  It would be a shame if they were sold out after a few years.  So, I always tell them to take care and be quiet, and develop quietly their treasure which they carry.

BD:    What advice do you have for young pianists?

CE:    [Laughs]  It’s really a dictionary of advices for pianists.  The piano is a difficult instrument.  The piano is this big, black animal with white teeth that can chew up people’s ability to express themselves because of all this wire and wood and joints.  When you press a key, then it takes so many joints until the hammer hits the string, and then the tone comes out.  You have to move all the joints from your mind or heart into the finger, through the hands and the arms and shoulders, so it’s a long way that the tone is produced.  Therefore, pianists should take care very much of the direct way their sound works.  Many pianists are not so careful about their sound, how the finger presses a key, and how it sounds in reality.


BD:    They are expecting the mechanics to take care of themselves?

CE:    Yes, but they should listen to each sound produced, and then check if the sound is really, really what they want, that it’s really beautiful.  And with it goes, of course, the amount of expression.

BD:    Are there, perhaps, too many obstacles to overcome?

CE:    No, but it’s in the nature of the instrument.  There are not too many.  One can sort very well the problems, and then one is a Rubinstein or a Horowitz.  [Laughs]

BD:    Do we have people now who are on the level of these two past masters?

CE:    Yes.  There are coming up, some new people.  For example, there is an American pianist, who has not played so much in this country, but I think he is one of the very, very best just because he has incredible sense for sound.  He has a virtuosity like Horowitz, and a power of expression that is very, very unique for a young person in his twenties.  His name is Tzimon Barto.  I think he has played here.  I think he has played in Ravinia, and also in Chicago, but generally not so much in this country.  In Europe he is quite a name, and I know him very well because he is also conducting, and studied a bit conducting with me.  He’s very good in conducting also, but he is an enormous talent.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

CE:    Oh, yes.  It’s wonderful to make music with so many musicians.  I express it this way
not to let musicians make music for you, but make music with them.  It’s wonderful to convince them to the way you are thinking about the score, but then getting so much from them.  There is also the pleasure and the enormous satisfaction of the evening when it works out well between a conductor and orchestra.  There is a give and take all the time.

BD:    Thank you for bringing your musicianship to Chicago.  We appreciate it.  Will you be back in Chicago?

CE:    I don’t know, in the moment.  I’ve so many plans for the next year that my calendar is just charged, very much charged.  But I hope very much that I come back soon.

BD:    Do you make sure that your calendar is not over-charged?

CE:    Yes.  I begin now to really make sure, because I hope I have many, many years to live, so I want to live them well, to not run out of energy.

BD:    You are just fifty.  Are you at the point in your career where you should be, or where you want to be?

CE:    I want to be careful.  I’m a very happy person, in a way, and I cannot complain about life.  It taught me a lot, and I know that it will teach me much more.

BD:    Good.  Thank you so much.

CE:    Thank you.

As with any profession, being an international performing musician entails much work, many mundane activities, several extraordinary experiences,
and also a few oddities.  Among the non-regular items of my guests, conductor Ferdinand Leitner has a bridge named for him, and another
conductor, Helmut Rilling, was immortalized as a bobblehead doll.  But perhaps the strangest item is shown below in an Ebay listing...


© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the Ravinia Festival on August 10, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and again in 1995 and 2000;  and on WNUR in 2004 and 2009.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.